In the eyes of science fiction author Ray Bradbury, the only crime worse than burning books is not reading them at all. We all remember books our own way. Focusing, forgetting, glazing over, missing parallels, inventing others; we embellish. When talking about a book with other people, I often wonder if we even read the same book—or, somehow, two things with the same title by the same author. It’s like we’ve both seen a whale in the water at one point in our lives, and we’re trying to determine the shape of its eyes. Obviously, there's some overlap, a little play in the bones, but it’s more of a Venn diagram than a flowchart, a sort of private film that plays for each reader, renewed with each read, every scan a fresh translation. Neither film nor literature exists as Object. Rather, each can be reduced to a set of stimuli floating in space, never in one place at one time. Not even at the site of mind.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky wrote Piknik Na Obochine (Roadside Picnic) almost two decades before the Chernobyl meltdown. The original Russian showed its blistered face to the world in 1971, and the first English translation rolled out, to much critical acclaim, in 1977. The Strugatskys were science fiction giants in the crumbling shadow of the USSR. Elsewhere, the book remains better known as the inspiration for Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, frequently hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made.
If you've seen the film, you'll learn a lot about its titular stalker, whose name is Redrick, or "Red." If you’re familiar with neither book nor film, “stalker,” like "punk," is a defamation worn as a badge by any man entering "the Zone," the site of an alien invasion which may or may not be a picnic. I say “man” because there is no indication given in the book that a stalker could possibly be a woman. Many, many stalkers are named in the text—in the film, there’s just one—and none of them are women. Nor are women afforded many other roles: just cooking, making drinks and babies, looking sexy. In the book, children are literal creatures. In the film, they are mystical.
This is a new translation. The first remained out of print for many years. When I became interested in Stalker, paperback editions of Roadside Picnic sold for over $100. Now this one is available at a typical price. Not knowing the Russian or the original English translation, it’s hard to say which is better or why. But I’m led to believe this Chicago Press edition corrects at least a few errors. It comes with a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky. In the foreword, Le Guin makes the outlandish claim that the Strugatskys wrote “as if they were indifferent to ideology…as free men write.” But I doubt any of us really write outside ideology, and we certainly aren't all men—as Ursula knows well enough.
Stalker was filmed in Estonia, but Roadside Picnic could just as easily be set in Ukraine. For some reason, Le Guin believes it to be set in “North America, perhaps Canada.” The film refers to their country as “small,” suggesting Estonia. But in the book, The Borscht, a stalker dive bar, takes the name of the well-known Ukranian beet soup. Told in the first-person perspective of four characters (three of whom are Redrick at various stages of life) the novel, like a lot of its era's genre work, is plagued by pulpy mediocre dialogue, its knuckles heavy on the jargon key. The other character whose perspective we haunt is also, predictably, a man, as is the scientist in the novel's opening "interview."
When brothers write books or make films, I'm reminded that storytelling really is child’s play. We all did it. Some of us never stopped. But why don't we often see sisters writing books or making films on the level of say, the Coen Brothers, or the Brothers Grimm? And where are the brother-sister teams? Obviously, the Strugatskys wrote from a different time, a different paradigm. Their boyish gaze makes me roll my eyes; such sexism should be obvious to anyone, at any angle, in any era, although it's often not. But paradigms do shift. Arkady died in 1991, Boris in November.
In the early 1970s, Tarkovsky recommended Roadside Picnic to Mikhail Kalatozov, who wanted to turn it into a film. But he was unable to acquire the rights from the brothers. It’s interesting to imagine what the film might have been with Kalatozov at the helm. His multi-dimensional female protagonist in The Cranes Are Flying, often referred to as a turning point in Soviet film history, paved the way for movies like the 1998 female buddy film Strana Glukhikh (The Country of Deaf), and Zvyagintsev's recent Elena.
Not to suggest Russian film fares far better today. The Country of Deaf stars two women, yes, but it’s also set in a dark underworld of deaf and mute Muscovites, and its title in translation seems to play with the English “deaf” and “death.” Russian films that make it in the States tend to portray rugged men doing rugged things, especially rugged brothers (Come and See, The Return). Women are mostly looked at, in trouble, or absent. Paired with recent events, this suggests a smooth and round Russian patriarchy that couldn't crack the Bechdel test with a hammer and sickle. (As I type this, I hear a character say, “Russia is very out right now, except for in Russia, where it remains moderately popular,” on the Disney Channel, because I work as a "manny," taking care of two brothers. They don’t do child’s play, by the way. They play Minecraft. They build.)
In the radioactive forests surrounding modern-day Chernobyl, the real-life Zone of Alienation, some of the local workers refer to themselves as stullkers, a Russian term which, according to Boris, is attributed to the Strugatskys. I have not played the game “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl,” which apparently has even less to do with the book. Set in an alternate reality where a second nuclear disaster followed the explosion at Chernobyl, it still concerns the life of a stalker. The video game, of course, is driven by guns; the book and film strongly suggest that guns are worse than useless in the Zone. Reading the plot summary, you can see how the game began as an extension of the world laid out in Stalker and Roadside Picnic, but, like the space between two sides of an empty, there’s nothing there.
After reading Roadside Pinic, it seems disingenuous to call it the “inspiration” for Tarkovsky's Stalker. It seems more like Tarkovsky slipped a loose-fitting dress over a fever dream re-reading of the screenplay, which the brothers wrote, itself inspired by their novel, rather than adapted from it. I have no idea how accurate this is. But it feels right.
While there are a lot of similarities, Tarkovsky's adaptation of Roadside Picnic only shows one trip into the Zone, while others are, like much of the film, merely hinted at. As in the book, Stalker begins with an interview with a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, imbuing the film with the same power of scientific import, validating the proceedings in a way that seems vaguely colonial. The Writer invites a woman to the Zone, but the Stalker simply says “Go.” She drives away, and that's the last we see of her. The Professor is serious and meditative, in contrast to the scientists of the book, who are talkative if morose. What's interesting is that the actual plot of the film is not in the novel. The film somehow contains the book without being part of it. Interiors swell in painterly sepia, made to look like surreal, alien landscapes. The beautiful nature scenes of the Zone are in a nice saturated color stock. The book is somewhat fast-paced, but the film averages more than a minute a shot. My cat loves it. He does not get books.
The thing I love about Stalker is how well it manages the risky business of being artful science fiction. Say what you will, but the two are often at odds. Tarkovsky makes it look easy. The same cannot be said of this good, but ultimately forgettable novel. Despite Roadside Picnic's many flaws (most regrettably, the Strugastskys' juvenile sexism), it paved the way for one of the few truly profound reflections of the nature in human nature, of respect and despair, of greed and heartache, of courage, cowardice, narcissism, and hope; and that is enough.